There’s no way for me to do this subject justice but, despite the lateness, it doesn’t
feel right to let it pass without mention here.
Panel from “Once Upon a Time...” in Detective Comics #500 © 1981 DC Comics. [enlarge]
Len Wein, who died at 69 on Sept. 10th, provided me and an untold number of
other readers with countless moments of wonder. On top of that, Len was very much
a mensch. I saw him indulge fans at conventions with anecdotes many creators would surely have long since tired of telling, and he graciously spoke to me at length for a Comicology article celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “new” X-Men at a time — shortly before the release of the 2000 film — when dozens of journalists were likely ringing him up.
Although I didn’t see him often or know him well, I’m finding it hard to refrain from calling him Len. (He pronounced his last name, by the way, with a long “e”: “ween” rather than “wane” or “wine”.)
Panels from Wein's debut comics job in Teen Titans #18 © 1968 DC Comics. [enlarge]
Len broke into the comic-book industry via a 1968 issue of Teen Titans at DC with
his friend Marv Wolfman. He quickly amassed writing credits there and at Gold Key, Skywald, Warren, and Marvel as well, mostly on such anthology titles as House of Secrets and Twilight Zone; Cain and Abel, the on-page hosts of House of Mystery and its sibling title Secrets, were physically modeled on Wein and editor Joe Orlando’s assistant Mark Hanerfeld. Len wrote influential runs of DC’s Phantom Stranger and Justice League of America while spinning a stand-alone tale he devised with illustrator Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets #92 in 1971 into the ongoing Swamp Thing series, then succeeded Roy Thomas in 1974 as editor-in-chief at Marvel, for which he wrote Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and — briefly — the revived
Panels from “Sno' Fun!” [top, enlarge] in House of Mystery #199 and splash page [bottom, enlarge] of House of Secrets #92 featuring Cain and Abel © 1971 DC Comics.
X-Men was among the rare early-’60s Marvel concepts that underwhelmed, and it
went all-reprint in 1970. Once the idea of resurrecting it with a fresh group of international superheroes gained enough steam, Len introduced a Canadian mutant known as Wolverine — designed by Marvel art director John Romita and drawn for publication by Herb Trimpe — in The Incredible Hulk #180-181 to seed the ground. Giant-Size #1 found Wolverine recruited by Professor Charles Xavier alongside a couple of extant characters and fresh faces Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Thunderbird — all created by Wein and artist Dave Cockrum — to unite with original member Cyclops in hopes of saving his teammates Angel, Iceman, Marvel Girl, Havok, and Polaris. The new group’s adventures continued in X-Men #94, stanching the title’s run of bi-monthly reprints at five years, although due to the demands on his time Wein
handed scripting duties to his associate editor Chris Claremont.
Panels introducing Wolverine in the second person from The Incredible Hulk #180 © 1974
Marvel Comics. [enlarge, digital] [enlarge, gloriously muddy newsprint]
Under the direction of Claremont and Cockrum, then John Byrne, then Cockrum
again, X-Men’s popularity grew ever greater. Most of the characters named above have appeared, often in very different form, in the X-Men films. All were seen at some point in the 1990s animated series if not a decade earlier on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Live-action holdouts Polaris and Thunderbird have finally made the scene in the new Fox show The Gifted. I mention this not because movie and television adaptations inherently legitimize their source material — even if certain quarters in the industry hold that sentiment — but to point out that millions of people who never read the comics have seen and enjoyed the fruits of Len Wein’s and his partners’ and successors’ creative efforts.
Swamp Thing and The Human Target, a 1972 co-creation of Len’s with Carmine Infantino, both made it to live-action before any permutation of X-Men, incidentally.
Panels of Storm [top, enlarge] and Cyclops with the new recruits [bottom, enlarge]
from “Second Genesis!” in Giant-Size X-Men #1 © 1975 Marvel Comics.
Len returned to DC as a freelancer in 1978, introducing Wayne Enterprises’ Lucius
Fox in the flagship Batman title before tackling 1980’s The Untold Legend of the Batman and the giant-sized 1981 DC/Marvel crossover Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk. He became an editor at DC in 1980, overseeing such quality projects as that year’s launch of The New Teen Titans, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s revival of a concept that became rather DC’s answer to X-Men; Roy Thomas’ 1981 reframing of the company’s Golden Age superheroes in All-Star Squadron; Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s Batman and the Outsiders in 1983; Alan Moore’s revelatory 1984 reinvention of Swamp Thing; and Camelot 3000, an early direct-market-only project from DC and its first “maxi-series” (the publisher’s trade name for limited-run titles longer than a standard mini-series), from Barr and Brian Bolland. He was voted Best Editor in Comics Buyer’s Guide’s 1982 Fan Awards.
Panels from The Untold Legend of the Batman #3 © 1980 DC Comics. [enlarge]
Having reintroduced characters from other times and parallel worlds in Justice
League of America, Len co-plotted the first issue of 1985’s game-changing Wolfman/
Pérez blockbuster Crisis on Infinite Earths, consulted on the rest of the run, and edited its companion title Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe. Having worked with both Moore and Dave Gibbons, who illustrated Wein’s tenure on Green Lantern, he was assigned by executive editor Dick Giordano to oversee a little project
of theirs called Watchmen; it debuted in 1986.
Panels of Hal Jordan [top, enlarge] in Green Lantern #181 and his successor John
Stewart [bottom, enlarge] in Green Lantern #182 © 1984 DC Comics.
When Disney established its own comic-book house in 1990, after decades spent licensing to other publishers, Len was hired as editor-in-chief. The operation didn’t last long but in 1992 Len transitioned to scripting for the Batman and X-Men animated series, Transformers, and more. He kept a hand in print, creating Gunfire for DC with artist Steve Erwin and dabbling at Marvel, Image, and Defiant, occasionally revisiting the characters with which he was most associated for special projects. Cain and Abel, appropriated for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman after their anthologies closed shop, were again written by Len in a 1998 special issue of Sandman offshoot The Dreaming.
Over the past decade, Len’s work ranged from Simpsons comics for Bongo to the Watchmen prequel Ozymandias to a march through the decades in DC’s Legacies and returns to several of his signature features from the ’70s. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards’ Hall of Fame in 2008.
Detail of splash from “Swamp Thing” in House of Secrets #92 © 1971 DC Comics. [enlarge]
I understand that Len didn’t have the best of health for some time prior to his leaving us and for that, as much as for his ultimate loss, my heart goes out to his wife Chris and to his many friends within and beyond comics.